Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2015

The Haunted Hotel (1859), by Wilkie Collins

Cover of the first edition of The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins, 1879 (Source: Wikipedia)

Cover of the first edition of The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins, 1879 (Source: Wikipedia)

Sometimes, a daft melodrama from the 19th century is a good break from serious reading.  The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins fits the bill.  It was apparently a contribution to the weekly periodical All the Year Round in 1859, one of five short stories bookended by stories from Charles Dickens for a Christmas edition Wikipedia suggests that Dickens’ stories and one by Elizabeth Gaskell are the strength of the collection. If  The Haunted Hotel is anything to go by, that’s probably true.

Beware: Spoilers (lots)

As was common in the period, the characterisation of the wicked ones who come to a sticky end is racist.  They’re all foreigners. There is

  • The sinister Countess Narona, a.k.a. the first Lady Mountbarry after his Lordship jilts Agnes Lockwood, who was his bride to be and the lovely heroine of the story;
  • Her brother, the villainous Baron Rivar, in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone, his chemical experiments financed by his sister’s fortune and by gambling; and
  • the courier Ferrari, married to a worthy Englishwoman but clearly not to be trusted because he has A Foreign Name.

The story opens with Countess Narona’s melodramatic visit to an English doctor.  She thinks she’s going mad.  He dismisses her histrionics. Soon he hears the rumours at the club that his mysterious patient is none other than the infamous woman who infatuated Lord Mountbarry at the gaming tables on the continent.  The marriage is a covert affair but the doctor is not the only one from the club to sneak into the brief ceremony out of curiosity.

Agnes bears her humiliation bravely as befits a Wronged British Gentlewoman. She goes off to Ireland to be governess to the children of Lord Mountbarry’s brother, leaving behind a Disappointed Swain i.e. Henry Westwick, the third brother.  Alas his love is unrequited because she is still pining for Lord M even though he is a Bounder and a Cad.

However, just before Agnes departs for Ireland, Fate sends Mrs Ferrari in quest of a reference for her husband.  Oh no, it’s for a job with the Wicked Mountbarry household in Venice!  Agnes recoils, but she cannot deny employment to the needy.  Fatefully, she gives the reference.  And not long after that, Mr Ferrari disappears without a trace.  Gasp!

Agnes, it seems, is forever fated to cross paths with the new Lady M, who flits around orchestrating melodramatic meetings with Agnes and Henry, often muttering prophetic words of Doom. These come to fruition in Venice in a hotel that was formerly the very palace where Lord M has so conveniently died of bronchitis.  (And alas for the insurers, the two attending doctors verify that there is nothing suspicious about the death, though we readers know better than that by now).

Having collected the insurance, the Baron and the Countess slope off to America together, but he dies, and she comes back, raving incoherently about Destiny.  Much mischief ensues.  The entire Mountbarry clan has descended on Venice for a family holiday, and *shudder* every member of the family who spends a night in the renovated room where Lord M died, suffers macabre experiences (horrible smells, nausea, bad dreams and even a headless horror).  (It is a measure of how weak this story is that I had worked out how these ‘supernatural’ events were arranged long before Collins reveals the mechanisms.  He should have rationed his clues more carefully.)

Things become even more bizarre when Henry overcomes his distaste for The Woman Who Wronged Agnes and had Nefarious Dealings resulting in the death of his brother Lord M,  and accepts the Countess’s offer to write a play for him.  Being only a Third Son, he has to make his own way in the world and must have money to Win the Hand of Agnes.  As well as investing in continental hotels, he’s also a theatrical entrepreneur.  The scenario for the play, which he reads when the Countess breathes her last, explains all the shenanigans.

Left to the reader’s imagination is the question: who was it who suspended the Headless Horror above Agnes’ head in the bedroom?

This story was written towards the end of Wilkie Collins’ life when he was in decline.  I’ve read The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and trust me, they are well worth reading.  T.S. Eliot (according to the book description at GoodReads) may well have admired The Haunted Hotel but I thought it was a daft and unconvincing example of the gothic horror story.

Author: Wilkie Collins
Title: The Haunted Hotel
Publisher: Gutenberg 170
Read on the Kindle.


  1. I’ve read The Woman in White and the Moonstone too. Recently, I dug out my box of Collins and thought about which one I want to read next. Think I’ll hold on this title for now and seek another.


    • A *box of Collins? Now that sounds intriguing…
      And do you have other ‘boxes’??


  2. I can safely delete this one from my e-reader it seems. Collins can usually be relied upon for some complex plot devices and stretching the point coincidences, but this story does, as you say seem ultra daft. Thanks for warning me off and saving me time.


    • LOL if your eReader is anything like mine, full of freebie downloads of classic authors that I added to it in the first flush of enthusiasm – perhaps you are glad to delete some of the dross!


  3. How weird… I found my copy of this last weekend (I must have bought it 10 years ago) and put it on my bedside table to read in the next few weeks and now you’ve reviewed it!


  4. For me, Armadale is far and away his best. Love it!


    • I don’t think I’ve read that one… but in his prime he certainly was a very good writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Just finished it, and largely agree with your opinion. The plot machinations are too fantastic and theatrical, the characters just ciphers. The casual racism and sexism are off-putting, too. Nevertheless, as you say at the start, as a diverting, undemanding holiday read it’s ok – but not as good as the great novels of the 1860s. Will try to compose my thoughts for a post


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